Monday, October 29, 2007

Trick-or-Treat Survival Tips

I brought my box of Halloween decorations up from the basement last night. It’s sitting in the dining room now. I haven’t actually taken anything out of the box, but I think if I leave it where we have to walk around it every once in a while, that’s festive enough.

My son, on the other hand, is so excited for Halloween he can hardly sit still. He’s been counting down the days since August, poring over Halloween costume catalogs with his friends and calculating which streets he’ll hit to get the most candy.

He doesn’t care that he won’t be able to eat half of what he gets. The candy is nice, but it’s really the least important part of the whole night – the adventure is what’s important! Dressing up, seeing everyone else in costumes, wandering around after dark with flashlights and glowsticks, knocking on door after decorated door yelling “trick-or-treat,” and marveling at a normally quiet neighborhood crawling with ghouls and beasties – oh, it’s a night kids dream about!

As usual, we parents of food-allergic kids often blow the candy thing way out of proportion. So today I’m going to talk about some trick-or-treat survival tips.

Halloween isn’t nearly as much about the candy as it is about “getting” the candy. So as a parent, I don’t feel guilty, sad, distressed, worried, or angry that my kid is going to get a bucket-full of candy he can’t eat. I don’t want him eating a bucket-full of candy, anyway! The first year we dealt with allergies, I decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or in this case, I decided not to throw the whole experience of trick-or-treating out with a few handfuls of candy.

So if you’re struggling with what to do, stop struggling. Let your kid go trick-or-treating (or trunk-or-treating, if that’s your preference). It’s okay. Just lay down some rules before-hand, so there are no surprises. Then let them enjoy the adventure of trick-or-treating, because that’s really what it’s all about. Here are some survival tips that work for us:

Tip #1: No one eats anything until everyone gets home and the parent reads the label on every piece of candy. That way, no one is eating unidentified foods and having a reaction while you’re out in the dark a block away from home. Make sure the kids agree, understand, and agree again. Get them to narc on each other if necessary. No one sneaks anything.

Tip #2: If you child is super-sensitive to an ingredient, you might have them wear gloves with their costume, so that any allergenic candy that touches their hand on the way into the bag doesn’t cause a skin reaction. Toss the glove in the wash or in the trash when you get home.

Tipe #3: Unlabeled candy is assumed to be unsafe. Period. The only exceptions are brand-name candies that you are already familiar with and know are safe. (For example, I know Dum-Dum lollipops, Starbursts, and Skittles are okay for my son, so I’ll let him keep those.) If there is a type of candy that he’s particularly interested in, I might promise to look for it at the store the next day, and read the ingredients there. But it goes into a separate container until we’ve seen it at the store and verified its safety.

Tip #4: Talk about what to do with any candy that isn’t safe BEFORE you go trick-or-treating. My son's an only child, and he has a good friend who is, too. They go trick-or-treating together, and at the end of the night, they pool all their candy together, then divide it up. She gets all the candy he can’t have (except for the Three Musketeers bars – those are mine!), and she gives him the “safe” candy. It works out about evenly. Sometimes she ends up with a little more, but my son doesn’t mind. He’s actually grateful that she’s taking the “bad” stuff. Plus it’s a lot more fun to go trick-or-treating with a best pal than by themselves, so they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get a night together.

If your kids don’t have friends willing to trade candy, other options for getting rid of “unsafe” candy include:

1) Trade unsafe candy for safe candy that you have bought ahead of time.

2) “Buy” the unsafe candy from your child – but establish a price ahead of time, such as a nickel a piece, a dollar a pound, or the whole kit and caboodle for a new DVD, a small toy, a trip to the movies, a night out with Dad, a visit to the dollar store, or other such treat.

3) Look for a dentist or other business in your area that buys candy from kids on the day after Halloween. There’s at least one dentist in Layton that does. The kids get money, and the dentist donates the candy to a children’s hospital, I think.

4) Let the child “donate” the unsafe candy to Mom or Dad, so they can take it to work and share it with their coworkers.

5) Let the child donate the unsafe candy to a local women’s shelter, food bank, homeless shelter, or family of an Iraqi soldier – the soldiers always seem to appreciate candy that they can share with friends or give to Iraqi children.

That’s it for my survival tips. I hope they help. Now, can someone help me get my decorations out of the box before Wednesday?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Phantom Gifts are Spooky

Ugh. I’ve been visited by The Phantom.

The Phantom is an annoying neighborhood ritual where neighbors leave anonymous treats on your doorstep, along with a cutesy Halloween poem and a drawing of a ghost. You hang the ghost on your door so everyone will know you’ve already been visited. Then you’re supposed to make new treats and deliver them anonymously to two other neighbors, with copies of the same poem and ghost. Then they give them to two neighbors, and pretty soon, the whole neighborhood is glowing with gratitude, a warm sense of community, and a ruined diet.

I hate this ritual. Call me Scrooge. (I know, wrong holiday.)

It’s not that I don’t like my neighbors. I DO like my neighbors. I have some really nice neighbors, in fact.

It’s not that I don’t like giving neighbor gifts, either. At Christmas time, I like taking small gifts to my immediate neighbors, because we don’t get to see each other very often during the short, cold winter days, and it’s a good excuse to say hi.

So why am I grumpy?

1) It’s anonymous, so I don’t know if I can trust it. I don’t think eating food you find lying around on the ground is a good idea in the best of circumstances. What if this same plate of brownies has been regifted through four busy neighbors already? It could be a week old before I even see it! Or what if there’s someone in the neighborhood who hates me and thinks I’d enjoy brownies laced with pot, Ex-Lax, or rat poison? I don’t think I’ve offended anyone, but you never know. Maybe someone hates blue Hondas, and they’ve never forgiven me for driving one. Hey, these are human beings we’re dealing with. People are weird. It happens.

2) It has an obligation taped right to it. I prefer doing something nice because I want to, not because I’ve been told to. Heaven knows I have enough obligations piled up right now, without some blue-Honda-hater telling me I have to stay up past midnight baking cupcakes to deliver them to two other unsuspecting harried moms.

3) It contradicts the #1 Halloween trick-or-treating rule we enforce on our kids. Honestly, this is the one that amazes me. Ever since the 1960s, when rumors of LSD-tainted candy and apples containing razor blades ran rampant, children have been told to never, ever, EVER eat a Halloween treat that wasn’t individually packaged from the store. But when unidentified home-made treats show up on your doorstep, you’re just supposed to take it inside your home and blithely feed it to your children? Are you KIDDING me?

4) And last but not least, the anonymous goodies left on your porch never come with an ingredients label. I feel bad that whoever went to the trouble of staying up past midnight, satisfying the obligation ghoul, has now wasted her time and money by leaving these treats for a food-allergic family that can’t eat them because we can’t tell if they contain peanut butter or almond extract. If the anonymous part of this trick was removed from the treat, and people just added a little tag saying “From the Smiths,” then I could call up Mr. or Ms. Smith and ask about the ingredients. Or at the very least, I could thank them for the gift. And get to know a neighbor.

I know this ritual was intended to be a community-building exercise. And I know most people probably think I’m over-reacting. But all that the Phantom gifts give me are misgivings and guilt – not really the feelings the originator intended, I’m sure.

So I taped the paper ghost to my door so no one else will bring me anything, and I let my little branch of the Phantom network die. I figure other neighbors are continuing to spread Phantom joy and anonymous “I dare you eat this without knowing its origin” gifts to the other neighbors, so no one will feel left out if I don’t participate.

But don’t worry. I’ll make up for it on Halloween. I’ll give all the kids that come to my door twice as much candy as the neighbors. And it’s all nut-free, milk-free, and egg-free, too. They’ll know who it’s from, and they’ll know it’s safe, and they’ll see me smile when I give it to them. And they won’t have to give it to two other neighbors or tape a sign to their door afterwards, either.

I like my Halloween heavy on the treats, and light on the tricks. And I think community-building exercises should let you get to know your neighbors, not hide from them.

Scrooge may be my middle name, but I still can’t wait for Halloween!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday, Monday

Monday morning. The weekend’s over. That means we’re back into the daily melee of packing the school lunch, finding the matching socks, flattening the wild bed-head hair so he doesn’t frighten the teachers, reloading the backpack, listening for the carpool honk.

It’s also milk delivery day. I order milk, eggs, and bread from a local dairy because they’re hormone-free (the milk and eggs, that is, not the dairy employees). It’s more expensive, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something healthy for my family. Gotta counter-act the PopTarts and drive-thru burgers somehow!

Over the last couple of years, this dairy has been turning into a grocery store on wheels. They keep adding food to their available stock. First, it was fruit juices and yogurts. Then they added fresh produce. Over the last year, they’ve been adding hormone-free meats (tempting, but way out of my weekly grocery budget because it’s so much more expensive than grocery store choices), as well as Italian and Mexican food, such as pasta sauces and tamales. Last week, I noticed they added coffee beans. (What ARE they feeding those cows, anyway?)

This morning, I got an email survey from them, asking about more food choices and how likely I’d be to purchase them from the dairy. The interesting thing was that the very first question was something like “What dietary choices do you make when buying food for your family?” The options I could check included “Allergy: Nuts,” “Allergy: Milk,” and “Allergy: Wheat,” along with things like “Low Fat” and “Diabetic.”

Food allergy awareness! Yippee!

Five years ago, I felt like Kim and I were the only people in Utah who knew about food allergies. Now I find allergy warnings and information on restaurant menus, door signs at fast food joints, food packaging, and now even consumer surveys!

This makes me happy because… well, you know. I’m selfish. I want everyone to know about allergies so that it will make my son’s life (and mine) easier.

But all this food allergy awareness also makes me sad because… it means a lot more kids have food allergies. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But it’s a fact of life nowadays, so there you go.

At our support group meeting last Wednesday, a new mom came. (New to allergies, I mean, not new to being a mom! I’ve really got to learn to be more specific.) She’d recently discovered her child was allergic to nuts, and she was having a hard time dealing with it because she felt so overwhelmed and alone. She seemed quite glad to find us, and we welcomed her into the “club” with open arms and hopefully enough encouragement and information to help get her through this tough adjustment period.

As hard as it is for anyone to learn they’ve got to deal with allergies, I am so glad that for this mom, life will be just a little easier than it would have been 5 years ago, because awareness is rising. And it’s because of a million other ordinary moms and dads just like us, all across the country, who are quietly having to explain to teachers, relatives, neighbors, restaurant managers, and babysitters that food allergies have to be understood and accommodated.

Amazing what we everyday folk can do, isn’t it? After all that, surviving a Monday morning is a piece of (allergen-free) cake.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Phthalates, Matthew McConaughey, and Fish?

I was reading an interesting book this week – Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax. It describes what he considers the 5 factors that are contributing to the decline of the productive male in American society. Basically, he sees an epidemic of “slacker dudes” everywhere he looks – young men who have no ambition and no drive to do anything but play video games, live like parasites off their parents and/or girlfriends/wives, and indulge in online porn. He likens them to the Matthew McConaughey character in the movie Failure to Launch.

I read it with a degree of skepticism. I don’t know too many males living this life he describes. Most of the men I know are gainfully employed. Those that aren’t have chosen to be at-home dads, and they’re working hard at that role. They’re definitely not the slackers Dr. Sax is describing. But then again, most of the men I know are already well into their 30s or above. And none of them look like Matthew McConaughey. Maybe my sample is skewed.

However, as I talked to some friends this week, a couple of their younger brother-in-laws cropped up in the conversation, and they sounded suspiciously like the slacker dudes in the book. Hmmm.

While I don’t necessarily agree with everything the doctor was describing in his book, it made me think about some things I hadn’t really considered before. One of the 5 factors he describes is the unfortunate celebration of violence and law-breaking in video games – I agreed 100% with that one. But one factor I hadn’t ever heard of before was “endocrine disruptors.” Basically, he cites a bunch of studies that show that phthalates –chemicals in polycarbonate plastic used in things like bottles, plastic wrap, and baggies – are being blamed for mimicking estrogen, causing a drastic drop in men’s testosterone levels (among other things), and killing the ambition and drive that testosterone controls in men. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but you get the idea. He even cites studies that show one out of every three college-age men have sexual dysfunction now. One in three? Wow. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was in college!

Oddly enough, the estrogen-mimicking chemical seems to have the opposite affect in women – women seem to have more energy and drive to accomplish things than before, and their bodies are maturing at an earlier age.

He also reports that in some areas where phthalates are prominent in the water supply, such as the Potomac River, male fish are growing eggs instead of sperm and male animals are becoming feminized. As my son says, “Ewwey!”

So what has this got to do with food allergies? Maybe nothing. But this alarming decrease in men’s testosterone levels has been happening over the last couple of decades.

That got my attention. Food allergies have drastically increased over the last couple of decades, too.

And, coincidentally, the rate of autism has been increasing over those same couple of decades.

Nothing says these three things are related. But it kind of makes me wonder. Thirty or forty years ago, we didn’t use plastic in nearly as much food packaging. We didn’t have as many synthetic chemicals in foods. We didn’t lug pre-bottled water everywhere we went – we drank it out of glasses or metal thermoses. (On the other hand, we did use a lot more really nasty stuff like DDT and asbestos. So perhaps we’ve just traded poisons.)

Phthalates have made our lives more convenient. But maybe it’s changed our bodies in ways we’re just beginning to suspect.

During the Roman Empire, the Romans made amazing strides in civilization. Their forms of government, their art, their philosophy, and their architecture grew by leaps and bounds beyond anything that had come before. One of their incredible inventions that made city life so much more progressive, hygienic, and convenient was indoor plumbing. They ran water pipes throughout their cities, bringing fresh water to the populace and draining “used” water away. It was a phenomenal accomplishment.

The only problem was that the pipes they laid so precisely were made of lead.

Madness was an unexpected, and to the Romans inexplicable, side effect of convenience.

I can’t help but wonder if, in the name of convenience, we are now changing our environment in ways we don’t yet understand, introducing problems we don’t know how to fix, or affecting our society in ways we can’t recover from.

Great. Like I needed something new to worry about. Of course, I’m just grasping at straws and probably making mountains out of coincidence molehills. We’ve got years of studies ahead of us before we really find out what’s happening to cause all these food allergies. I would welcome some solid science right about now.

Oh well. I gotta run. I’m going shopping for a steel thermos.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I'll Keep My Own Bag of Troubles, Thanks

My very good friend Shari once told me about an old Jewish proverb – something about how if we could all put our troubles in a bag and set it on a table, and then pick up someone else’s bag, we’d choose our own again.

Funny how often I think about that.

When my son was 4, we’d already known about his peanut/nut allergy for a couple of years. I was having him retested to see if – against the odds – he’d outgrown it. With kindergarten looming (okay, so it was still a year and a half away – I like to get a head-start on my worrying), I was feeling sorry for myself, wondering why my son had to be cursed with a food allergy that would make normal school lunches anything but normal. How would I keep other kids from rubbing their PB&Js in his hair? What would I do if the teacher insisted all the students make ladybugs out of walnut shells? What if my son got tired of salami sandwiches? O, woe is me!!!

A little over the top, I admit.

To get his blood drawn for the allergy test, we went to a nearby hospital. It happens to be a renowned children’s hospital, with the expertise and facilities that draw young patients from across the western U.S.

As we walked down the hall looking for the out-patient lab, we began passing some of those patients and their parents. There were children in wheelchairs, their bodies crumpled and contorted. There were children on gurneys, hooked up to machines that made sure their hearts kept beating or their lungs kept filling with air. There were children with bright smiles and missing limbs, and others with body parts intact, but a glazed-over look to their eyes that belied other damage.

Meanwhile, my 4-year-old whirlwind was running down the hall, shouting excitedly about the primary-colored mechanical water sculpture in the next lobby. As I tried to keep him from clambering into the fountain or hopping across the benches, I felt like I should be apologizing to all the other parents. This was a place for terribly sick children, I thought to myself. My child wasn’t sick – he just had food allergies!

And just like that, my perspective reset itself. All my self-pity was transformed into a sense of shame, and my own bushel-bag of burdens began to look snack-sized.

What had I been whining about? My kid could run, laugh, climb, and get into a thousand varieties of trouble – all before breakfast! So what if I have to be extra careful about the breakfast he comes into contact with? So what if I have to carry an EpiPen? I and my son have the very good fortune to be living in an age when we have EpiPens, knowledgeable doctors, and an amazing variety of safe foods to choose from.

A few minutes later, my son was asking the nurse a dozen questions about drawing blood, and he watched, fascinated, as she drew his. His sharp little mind was so busy figuring out how the needle and tube worked that he forgot to cry. All the way out the door, he chattered about how the next time I needed blood drawn, he could do it for me.

As we stepped out into the sunshine, I tucked my bag of troubles into my pocket. It felt familiar and – while not quite comfortable – a lot lighter.

Now, whenever someone new says, “Oh, dealing with his allergies must be terrible!” I try to imagine what might be lurking inside their bag of troubles. Then I shake my head, smile, and say, “As challenges go, I’ll keep this one, thanks.”